Caught up in the inspiring architecture, beautiful paintings and rich decor, visitors to the Chiesa della Santa Church in Bologna may barely notice the simple wooden doors to the left entrance that lead to a small side chapel. The curious and bold who venture past the nondescript doors are treated to a rare site among saintly relics – the incorrupt body of St. Catherine of Bologna sitting uniquely upright on a golden throne encased in glass. The physical remains of Saint Catherine still baffle scientists who even until today cannot explain why, after more than 500 years, her body has retained a level of flexibility attributed to that of a living person. Wearing a Poor Clare’s habit, her skin is tight with time and dark with centuries of candle soot from those beseeching her intercession through the ages. Regally she sits with her similarly blackened hands tenderly clutching a golden cross and aged Bible.
Having died and been buried without a casket in 1463 at the age of 50, the sweet odor of sanctity began emanating almost immediately from the humble saint’s grave followed by miraculous cures for those who sought her assistance. Just 18 days after her burial, Catherine’s body was exhumed and found to be completely incorrupt. Since her canonization in 1712 by Pope Clement XI, innumerable miracles have been attributed to her among those devoted to her powerful intercession.
The path to sainthood for Catherine de’ Vigri stands in contrast to the lifestyles of today’s partying, jet-set Royals. Much like St. Catherine of Siena, St. Catherine of Bologna shunned the riches and royal connections of her time and opted instead for a religious life that embraced austerity, deep prayer and suffering over stately splendor.
Born into an aristocratic Bolognese family as the daughter of a respected ambassador, Catherine grew up within the court of the Duke of Ferrara, Italy. As an eventual lady-in-waiting to the Duke’s daughter, with a privileged education and upbringing, Catherine quickly became known throughout the region for her deep insight into the works of the Fathers of the Church as well as for her piety, purity and modesty.
For Catherine, the regal grandeur of aristocratic life and its many temporal trappings paled in comparison to what she knew in her heart and soul to be the greatest treasure of all – Jesus as her heavenly spouse and merciful Savior. At just 17 years old, Catherine joined a semi-religious lay community and later went on to join other women in founding a monastery of the Order of Poor Clares. Casting off comfortable courtly life with ready love and obedience, Catherine found great joy in performing humble duties of daily laundry and the baking of convent bread. Though she felt unworthy, out of obedience, she later accepted the role as mistress of novices. For the next 22 years of her life she oversaw the spiritual development of those entrusted to her. In 1456, in the same spirit of humility, she moved to Bologna to become abbess of the order of the Poor Clares at Corpus Christi Convent.
Throughout her life, Catherine, like all of us, suffered much temptation. She was said to have been visited in visions of both God and Satan and was said to be tormented by detailed visions of the last judgment and the devil’s most common tricks. In one example, she experienced a dark night of the soul in which she was tormented by the temptation of disbelief in the Eucharist. After much suffering, the Lord consoled her in a vision in which He gave her clear awareness of the real Eucharistic presence. In another vision, God revealed the forgiveness of her sins, giving Catherine a powerful experience of divine mercy.
In an effort to combat the evil she experienced in her own visions and also help to arm others in their own spiritual battles, she developed a list of seven spiritual weapons featured in her Treatise on the Seven Spiritual Weapons Necessary for Spiritual Warfare (1438). Of the book, kept hidden until she neared death, Catherine said, “Whoever wishes to carry the cross for His sake must take up the proper weapons for the contest, especially those mentioned here: (1) to be careful always to do good; (2) to believe that we can never achieve anything truly good by ourselves; (3) to trust in God and, for His love, never to fear the battle against evil, either in the world or in ourselves; (4) to meditate frequently on the events and words of Jesus’ life, especially His passion and death; (5) to remember that we must die; (6) to keep the benefits of heaven firmly in our minds, (7) to be familiar with Holy Scripture, keeping it in our hearts to guide all our thoughts and actions.
Printed in 1475, the brief treatise became an important part of the campaign for her canonization. It eventually went through 21 later editions including translations in Latin, French, Portuguese, English, Spanish and German.
It has been recorded that after her death, she appeared to a nun at her convent and requested that her body be placed in a sitting position. One cannot help but wonder why this particular request was made! Perhaps it is because this is how Catherine spent much of her life, sitting as she did with her sisters, instructing them, and now us, in the ways of sanctity. Perhaps it is also her way of reminding us that she and all the Heavenly Court are very much present with us today, particularly as we fight the battles of our own lives and times.
As Patron Saint of the Arts due to her playing the viola, painting (there is one known painting by the Saint) as well as her creative spirit, art education and visions, Catherine serves as a spiritual model not only artists but also our modern day world. Speaking eloquently of the Saint, Pope Benedict has said,
“From the distance of so many centuries she is still very modern and speaks to our lives. She, like us, suffered temptations…the temptations of disbelief, of sensuality, of a difficult spiritual struggle. She felt forsaken by God, she found herself in the darkness of faith. Yet in all these situations she was always holding the Lord’s hand, she did not leave him, she did not abandon him. And walking hand in hand with the Lord, she walked on the right path and found the way of light.”
Her posture as a sitting Saint also seems to invite us to continue to seek her intercession, laying our troubles in her capable lap. The piety and humility she possessed inspired many to follow her in her day. Always spiritually upright, like Catherine, let us also resolve to live as she did – applying her seven weapons for spiritual warfare in our own lives and never letting go of the Lord’s hand even during our darkest, most challenging moments.
image: The Child Jesus and Mary, painted by St. Catherine of Bologna.